GUILFORD – One of the highly anticipated dialogues of the 2017 legislative session is a conversation about whether Connecticut will join the growing list of states to legalize recreational marijuana.
On Wednesday night, a large group of residents came to the Guilford Community Center to hear from experts about the topic and find out where their three area state legislators on the controversial issue.
Sen. Ted Kennedy Jr., and Reps. Sean Scanlon and Vincent Candelora indicated that they were, all three, leaning against voting in favor of legalization.
“We should not be trying to solve our financial problems in the state of Connecticut by taxing marijuana,” Kennedy said, who added it is time to “put a halt to the widespread legalization’’of recreational marijuana in the country until further study of its effects are done.
Eight states, including Massachusetts and Maine now have legalized recreational marijuana, along with Washington, D.C.
Senate President Martin Looney, D-New Haven, has introduced legislation that would have Connecticut join the list of states to embrace legalization.
In an interview earlier this week on the subject, Looney said public opinion has swung greatly towards legalizing recreational marijuana.
“The tax benefits are something that need to be weighed,” said Looney, pointing out that neighboring Massachusetts will soon be reaping those tax benefits that Connecticut will not if it does not act.
Massachusetts voters approved selling recreational marijuana this past November in a close referendum vote. It is slated to begin selling recreational pot in 2018.
Looney has said the state, which is currently running a $1.5 billion deficit, would be poised to generate $50 million annually if the measure was approved.
“It’s quite arbitrary that we treat alcohol differently than we treat marijuana,” Looney added. “Marijuana should be regulated exactly the same way.”
A Quinnipiac University Poll conducted in March 2015 found 63 percent of voters support legalization.
But Candelora has been vehemently against that effort. He said he “continues to oppose the legislation to make it recreational,” in part because the marijuana on the market today is much more potent than it was years ago.
Candelora said he is troubled that his own children talk about marijuana “in front of me’’ and “joke about it.”
Scanlon added that he “has deep reservations about legalization.”
Scanlon said as a 2004 Guilford High School graduate, he is one of the younger legislators, and “I know a lot of people who smoke marijuana.”
He added that while he is not a scientist that he is worried about it possibly that using marijuana will lead to the use of harder drugs, especially in a time when the state is in a midst of an opioid crisis.
“It is not accurate to state that marijuana is the gateway to opioids,” Looney said. “It is just not true. The opioid crisis is a scourge in our state – but there is no linking of marijuana as part of it.”
Wednesday night’s community forum was organized by Project Courage, a substance abuse treatment center based in Old Saybrook that provides specialized treatment for adolescents and young adults.
One of the speakers was Dr. Deepak Cyril D’Souza, a Guilford resident, physician and Yale Medical School professor with 25 years of experience researching the long-term effects of marijuana on the brain.
D’Souza gave a slide presentation of the impact of marijuana on young people, which included a slide that said, according to his research, that marijuana use among young people in the state of Colorado, the first state in the union to legalize recreational marijuana, is the highest in the nation.
Also speaking was Gabby Palumbo, a junior at Guilford High School, and a member of Guilford D.A.Y. (Development Assets For Youth), a community group that lists reducing drug and alcohol abuse as its goal.
Gabby told the audience that legalizing recreational marijuana “will have a huge impact, a harmful one” on younger people.
Democratic Gov. Dannel P. Malloy, who successfully pushed for decriminalizing small amounts of marijuana in 2011 and legalizing the medical use of marijuana in 2012, hasn’t supported legalizing recreational use in the past.
His position on legalizing recreational marijuana is: “Never say never,’’ but he’s also said that he isn’t for it, that it’s not a priority for him this legislative session and he believes legalizing it encourages its use.
The number of patients in the state of Connecticut receiving medical marijuana treatment keeps growing, now at more than 15,000. There are a total of nine dispensaries, including one in nearby Branford, licensed to dispense medical marijuana.
In the past legislative session, a bill became law giving children under the age of 18 access to non-smokeable medical marijuana.
The new law, which went into effect last Oct. 1, gives minors with severe epilepsy and terminal illnesses access to marijuana after the approval of two doctors.